Chow Bella

Book Week: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman

What's on your summer reading list? This week, Chow Bella contributors will answer that question with reviews of the food-related books we've read lately. If you have a recommendation for us, please leave it in the comment section. Today's selection: Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.

Part of simplifying my life has been to reform my addiction to purchasing and adding to my book collection every book that has the words food, recipes, or ingredients in the title. I have culled down the cookbooks and food memoirs, reluctantly given titles away, and taken the unclaimed orphans to trade.

The new me will only add a volume that fills a void in my food geek shelves. I have had Michael Ruhlman's "Ratio" on my wanted list since it was published.

Ruhlman, author of The Making of a Chef and The Elements of Cooking, has distilled the fundamentals behind ingredient combinations in this "anti-recipe book". Wonder how chefs competing for TV titles effortlessly whip up a winning sauce, bread or cake without a recipe? Where are the transformative culinary secrets found outside the kitchens of culinary schools?

"Ratio" answers questions about how to approach cooking without relying on recipes. The title reveals what's between the cover, a baseline of ratios: the relationship of specific ingredients, which form sauces, vinaigrettes, dough, batters, stocks, forcemeats, and custards.

I was captivated by Ruhlman's description of the man and the idea behind the book. A conversation with Uwe Hestner, now retired chef-instructor and dean at Culinary Institute of America, and his page and a half list of culinary fundamentals planted the seeds that germinated and grew into Ruhlman's ratios. Ruhlman interviewed Hestner while attending CIA doing research for his book The Making of a Chef. "Za fundamentals of cooking don't change" Hestner stated, beginning a lesson that Ruhlman concludes is "all that is unchanging, fixed, elemental" in cooking.

The book is divided into five parts, each exploring the ratios behind basic ingredients and the techniques to transform them. For a good basic cookie dough, Ruhlman's ratio: 1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, and 3 parts flour translated into a ratio of 1-2-3. Add your favorite flavor-chocolate chips, lemon zest, almond extract, and customize. Switch out the white sugar with brown sugar or agave nectar to change texture or sweetness. Try substituting some of the flour with nut meal again altering the texture and flavor of the cookie. A simple ratio, combined with an understanding of ingredient combinations will unleash the Food Network star within.

Ruhlman does not rule out the importance of technique, and in each chapter he shares his tips along with recipes to get you practicing. "Ratio" is filled with culinary lessons made accessible to anyone who wants to be a better cook. Ruhlman gives us culinary history, intertwined with the why and the how for ingredients and technique. He tells us that writing a book begins with his urge to find out what he doesn't know. The same urge I have when I choose a book to read and add to my collection.

For more of Michael Ruhlman check out his food blog
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